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Article 5 min read

How to treat people: advice from volunteer managers and customer service

By Rebecca Huval

Last updated November 2, 2020

Every week they showed up and returned right on schedule. Many of them commuted an hour from their full-time jobs: beating traffic, rushing in, and excitedly beginning their shift as volunteers.

When I served as an AmeriCorps member at a public school, I was amazed at the volunteers I managed. They took their tutoring sessions seriously and often improved the reading scores of their students by several grade levels in a matter of months—and they were doing it all for free.

During that year, I was often struck by the unique relationship between myself and the volunteers I managed. They were almost like employees: I onboarded volunteers, gave them mini-performance reviews, and motivated them to keep improving their work. And yet, they weren’t like employees at all. After all, these dedicated tutors were not there for a paycheck. In yet another sense, my volunteers felt like customers. I was the brand ambassador, communicating the mission of the nonprofit and ensuring their experience was pleasant and rewarding enough that they would keep coming back.

Most deeply, these people felt like my community. We were all driven to help kids in our local public school improve that most fundamental skill: their ability to read.

[Related read: The power of a culture built on gratitude]

Patience, listening, and laughter

With the distance of years, I’ve become curious about what other industries might learn from the soft skills of volunteer managers—especially those more seasoned and skilled than I ever was. Bree von Faith is one such person. Currently the director of marketing and engagement at VolunteerMatch, and formerly a director on the volunteer trenches at Girl Scouts of Northern California, von Faith sees plenty of crossover between volunteer management and customer service.

“Patience is something that is definitely similar between volunteer management and customer service representatives, and really knowing your audience,” she says. “I used to do volunteer management, and it’s about knowing your audience and what they’re really interested in getting out of the conversation. What is the end goal that they’re looking for, and how can you make that experience positive?”

“Patience is something that is definitely similar between volunteer management and customer service representatives.” – Bree von Faith

In addition to doing good, some of my volunteers hoped to brighten up a kid’s day, so they did their best work with the class clowns who love to laugh. Others were hoping to see real improvement in their student’s literacy levels, so I paired them with the serious readers ready to get down to business. Customer service professionals engage in this same dance: What is the underlying reason that this person is calling me? Are they really this upset about their toaster malfunctioning, or are they looking for someone to vent at because they just got fired?

For both volunteer managers and customer service reps, the best approach is to listen—fully and empathetically, without interruption or judgment. “First and foremost, ask questions,” von Faith says. “I found that asking questions or saying, ‘Tell me more about that,’ helps. Also, repeating back what the volunteer is saying helps. For example, I would use a lot of ‘What I’m hearing you say is…. Is that accurate or is there something else I’m not picking up on?’ It helps them feel validated, and it makes sure I’m listening. Those two things diffuse the situation.”

For both volunteer managers and customer service reps, the best approach is to listen—fully and empathetically, without interruption or judgment.

Von Faith has noticed that her favorite customer service reps have used these same techniques on her, but she still feels charmed by their concern. It shows there are lessons from customer service that we all can learn. “When I go to Nordstrom’s or I want to return something, they really understand the value of what they’re bringing to me,” she says. “It’s in the way that they ask questions, and their overall demeanor. What I look for is high-quality things that stick with my personal style and brand… probably because I’m a marketer. When I go, they ask me what I’m looking for or why I wasn’t happy with something, they offer alternatives, and they’re fairly honest. They say I would recommend this, but not this, based on what you’re sharing with me.”

[Related read: Relational Mindfulness: 4 ways to relate as humans at work]

Getting to know you

This story offers yet another strategy that applies to volunteers and customers: Always have alternatives on hand to improve a situation that simply won’t work out. Deanna Berg, national director of community engagement at Reading Partners (the nonprofit where I served as an AmeriCorps member), says this is key. Once, she had a tough talk with a volunteer who had crossed a boundary by calling a student’s parents. Although she had to exit him from the program, she recommended that he volunteer for a program like Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), where this type of intervention is the whole point. “It’s understanding people are people, and you have to assume best intent,” she said. “You have to work with them as a partnership to solve problems.”

Lastly, volunteer managers have to build relationships: “getting to know somebody on a personal level without getting too personal,” von Faith says. “There’s a really fine balance that needs to happen, but it’s getting to know that person, what do they value, what are their interests, why are they volunteering. I always take note of something that’s happening in their life so I can ask about it in the future. Customer service is also about finding that point you have in common with that person—because that builds a relationship.”

To learn from volunteer managers in the wild, of course, von Faith recommends that customer service workers, and others who deal with the public, volunteer. “I think everyone should volunteer,” she clarifies. One of her peers in her MBA program worked at a cloud storage company. When he reflected on his volunteer experience, he realized that cloud storage helps hospitals and schools. He had found a new reason to go to work. “Volunteering teaches people a lot about themselves first and foremost, which is a bit philosophical. It also helps you connect to your community, which helps you gain a deeper sense of purpose. It might translate into the customer service space.”

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